Obama and the Afghan narco-state

By Bernd Debusmann
January 29, 2009

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

To understand why the war in Afghanistan, now in its eighth year, is not going well for the United States and its NATO allies, take a look at two statistics.

One is Afghanistan’s ranking on an international index measuring corruption: 176 out of 180 countries. (Somalia is 180th). The other is Afghanistan’s position as the world’s Number 1 producer of illicit opium, the raw material for heroin.

The two statistics are inextricably linked and, a year ago, prompted Richard Holbrooke, the man President Barack Obama has just picked as special envoy for Afghanistan, to write: “Breaking the narco-state in Afghanistan is essential or all else will fail.”

Holbrooke, who was not in government service at the time, took particular issue with the counter-narcotics strategy the Bush administration pursued in Afghanistan.

“The … program, which costs around $1 billion a year, may be the single most ineffective policy in the history of American foreign policy,” he wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post. “It’s not just a waste of money. It actually strengthens the Taliban and al Qaeda, as well as criminal elements within Afghanistan.”

Exactly what the Obama administration intends to do about that, and how it might break the narco-state, has yet to be articulated. Sending more troops to fight a growing insurgency does not necessarily translate into progress towards dismantling the “narco-state,” eliminating corruption or cutting down on the opium production whose proceeds help finance the Taliban.


The counter-narcotics strategy Holbrooke criticized so harshly centers on the eradication of drug crops, and has been the main weapon in the “war on drugs” the United States has been waging for decades around the world. That war failed to curb the production of illicit drugs and often proved counter-productive.

In Bolivia, for example, Evo Morales, a left-wing opponent of the United States, rose to political prominence and finally the presidency because he rallied a protest movement against U.S.-sponsored attempts to wipe out the cultivation of coca leaf, the raw material for cocaine.

De-emphasizing eradication in Afghanistan would amount to an implicit admission of the failure of policies pursued since the 1970s by both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, addressing the Senate Armed Services Committee this week, described Afghanistan as “our greatest military challenge right now” but said there could be no purely military solution — not even with the additional 30,000 troops Obama plans to dispatch over the next 18 months.

So if there’s no purely military solution, what are the chances of progress on the political front? An unnamed White House official sounded hopeful this week that the United States could push Afghan President Hamid Karzai into extending government control beyond the capital and stepping up the fight against corruption.

It is the same Karzai who declared jihad (holy war) on the drugs trade in 2004, a few days after he was sworn in as Afghanistan’s first democratically elected leader. That holy war made no dent in opium production and corruption blossomed.

“Karzai was playing us like a fiddle,” Thomas Schweich, a former top anti-narcotics official in Afghanistan, wrote in the New York Times last summer. “The U.S. would spend billions of dollars on infrastructure improvement; the U.S. and its allies would fight the Taliban; Karzai’s friends would get rich off the drug trade; he could blame the West for his problems; and in 2009 he would be elected to a new term.”


In other words, Karzai is not part of the solution, he’s part of the problem. As to solutions: One novel idea on opium-and-corruption comes from James Nathan, a political science professor at Auburn University in Alabama and former State Department official. He argues in a forthcoming paper that the most efficient way to tackle the problem would be for the United States or NATO to buy up the entire Afghan opium crop.

“Purchasing the whole crop would take it away from the traffickers without cutting more than half the economy of Afghanistan,” Nathan said in an interview. “Such a purchase would directly confront Afghanistan’s most corrosive corruption. It would end the Taliban’s money stream.”

And the cost? By Nathan’s reckoning, between $2 billion and $2.5 billion a year, no pocket change but not a large sum compared with the around $200 billion the U.S. taxpayer has already paid for the war in Afghanistan. The idea may sound startling but its logic is not far from the farm subsidies paid to U.S. and European farmers.

On a more modest scale than Nathan’s buy-it-all idea, a European think tank, the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS), is lobbying for an alternative to traditional counter-narcotics policies dubbed Poppy for Medicine.

That involves granting international licenses to poppy farmers in Afghan villages, where the crop would be turned into opiate-based medicines such as morphine or codeine, and then shipped out to the legal market.

It would place Afghanistan alongside Turkey (where the United States helped to introduce a similar program in 1974), India and Australia as legal producers of opium. Could it work? When ICOS, formerly known as the Senlis Council, first came up with the idea, the State Department cold-shouldered it.

But that was before Obama, who promised to listen to new approaches. Both the buy-it-all and the licensing concepts deserve a hearing.

For previous columns by Bernd Debusmann, click here.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

The last thing a drug baron would want is legalization of their illegal substance. And governments are as pointed out by many above are addicted to ‘legal drugs’ like tobacco and alcohol so do not want to acknowledge they are dangerous. And after all America is incredibly precious and conservative in its thinking about taboos.

i read most off the comments here. legalization and control of the opiates is the only thing that will work. it is the only way our boys will stop dieing and come home.

Posted by bum | Report as abusive

The legal drugs like alcohol and Tobacco are heavily regulated and taxed and are perfectly legal within the guidelines. And each one of them carries a personal responsibility along with them. It should be no different for hashish, marijuana, opium, or whatever….. It’s kind of hard to believe that with today’s “intellect” we still have laws against such things and we’re willing to go to such lengths to keep it so. “Both the buy-it-all and the licensing concepts deserve a hearing.” It’s amazing to me that we allow such people to control and influence us. Obama should be looking into opium farming in America before Afghanistan. Ridiculous.

Posted by jason | Report as abusive

Considering that drug use is rooted deeply within the human experience, and always has been, I think that the focus should not be on the drug addicts’ heroin. Focus should be handling our own, and the US’s own internal affairs, because there lies the issue. Not some poor farmer in a far away land. Get out of Afghanistan, enough of our children have died invading some country that had not invaded us first. Military spending on this ridiculous mission should go towards our own internal affairs, rehabilitation of the addicts, policing the drug world, after all we all use drugs and this affects us all.

Posted by Juin | Report as abusive

Why would I give a flying [care] if somebody chooses to smoke or shoot drugs? If the U.S. was a civilized country, we would have an amendment along the lines of “Congress shall pass no law imposing morality on the people. Adults shall be able to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt others.”

Posted by Hubert Cross | Report as abusive

I have to admit that the war on drugs is a flop all the money that was spent on it could have been spent on better projects most of the people doing the drugs are trying to escape the horrer of there life by useing drugs if the people who are useing the drugs are able to get better paying jobs and become a responcible provider for there household then alot of people who do these drugs will see the error of there ways and if not I say tax them like beer and tobacco take the money out of the hands of the dealers and those who supply them and you will see a difference just like Holland where the drug use dropped because of it not being aginst the law and that most of those who are doing the drugs are in defience of the law

Posted by Rick | Report as abusive

I work in the pharmaceutical industry and my employer sells opiate-based painkillers, among many other products like antidepressants and antibiotics. We sometimes joke that we are in direct competition with the illegal drug dealers to ease the pain and suffering of the world. In the testing lab, when a batch of painkillers is particularly poor quality, we say it is “Taliban grade”. It is pathetic that if you produce drugs illegally the US government will send the Marines after you but if you produce the same molecules with FDA approval you can make billions of dollars legally.

Bringing the Afghan drug trade into the legal, regulated marketplace would do far more to improve the security in Afghanistan than sending in another 30,000 US troops to run around the mountains trying to find “terrorists”, most of whom are Afghan citizens trying to resist what they perceive as an invading army.

I hope Obama reads this.

Posted by Bob Johnson | Report as abusive

Let’s see….opium production down to nil under Taliban. Downstream profits for governments, banks, and other criminals lost. Solution? Remove Taliban and viola! everybody’s back in business! Funny how that works isn’t it?

It is clear that Karzai needs to go and soon his replacement should be someone that all people in Afghanistan can look upto perhaps the old kings lineage?

Posted by simon | Report as abusive

The solution for all the problems including Afghanistan and drugs one is that the US deals with corrupt leaders and unqualified heads of states in the east.
Bring people who has have some brain not only Dollar’s worshipers!!
I do not see what was the benefit for the US or for Pakistan during Musharraf’s rule?! and after 8 years what did Karzai make for the benefit of his country other than stealing every pound paid for infrastructure etc!!! I am sure he didn’t invent any new idea which woud help Afghanistan to stand on its foot other than asking western governments to arrange and organise funding conferences to his pocket.

Posted by Poppy | Report as abusive

Bernd, have you spent any time in Afghanistan? If you had, you would, of corse, realize that the narcotics trade is a small dimension of an overarching problem. The problem is that, traditionally, Afghans are not used to being ruled via a representative democratic government and that power relationaships are tribal and familial in nature. You would also realize that in 2008 the price of wheat was higher than opium, if you had talked to any Afghan farmers. Also if you had spent any time in Afghanistan, you woud realize that Aghanistan is ethnicly Pashtun as is the Waziristan region of Pakistan, thus creating a safe zone where narco-warlords can trade in violence and drugs with no, realistic, punitive deterrent. You should go to Afghanistan, and apply your mind to the problems faced by a proud people. I invite a response, if you are so inclined.

Posted by Jed | Report as abusive

It is so incredible how theUS allows narco-economy to grow in Afghanistan. The only people benefit from narco trade are the government ministers and the Taliban. To top the insult, Bush spent billions on a war for little result.

Posted by ed | Report as abusive

Ask any economist whether legalizing drugs in the united states would bring the value of poppies up or down. The value of poppies is artificially high because of U.S. prohibition. This is an elementary fact.

Ask any street person whether there is any difficulty procuring opium products due to prohibition. The obvious answer is that the drugs are very available.

Ask domestic accountants how much money is spent on arresting and imprisoning people for nonviolent drug crimes. Ask yourself who benefits from these policies, who foots the bill, and who is victimized.

For citizens of Canada and the US who are struggling with their disastrous economy have nobody to blame but themselves. They accepted Bush’s “War on Terror”, spent over 2oo billions and turned Afghanistan into a Narco- state. Taliban Government had nothing to do with 911 and now that economy is in a downward spiral Obama must decide on peace rather than war on terror.
A bankrupt empire cannot afford spending money it does not have on a war it cannot win. How can a country like Canada that is going in a downward economic spiral spend the money on Afghanistan, when they need their money at home? How can the US is borrowing money from China to send more troops to Afghanistan, while their whole economy is in disarray! If there is no Demand for drugs in the West it would be no desire to cultivate Opium!
Taliban had destroyed most Opium. Now Afghanistan has three million drug addicts!It is time to look back and change our policy and our vision!

Posted by FARHAT MAQUAMI | Report as abusive

The case put forward by Bernd Debusmann is both cogent and, in terms of saving human lives at least, morally compelling. The majority of reactions to his argument are depressingly cynical, mostly because of a pervading defeatism, their authors’ inability to think outside the box and an apparent fear of any radical solutions.

For instance, the idea put forward by the ‘best comment’s’ author, Craig Coal, that smoothing out a drug-production bubble in Afghanistan will only make it pop up somewhere else in the world shows not only a deeply misanthropic Weltanschauung, but also ignores the fact that ‘globalization’ can be a positive force as well as a negative one. It isn’t all about McDonalds, Coca-cola and Nestlé.

To defeat tribalism and corruption and to install and strengthen democracy where it has never properly existed takes a huge amount of time and patience. And a sea change in attitude. Two things that seem to be in short supply to most of those who have submitted a comment are a spirit of optimism and a ‘can-do’ approach to life on a massive, global scale. For the first time in the history of mankind, we have a means of communication that is global and instant. Let’s use it to fight anti-democratic forces and corruption with education and political awareness. The ‘buy-it-all’ gambit could be the start of something extraordinary.

Posted by JM | Report as abusive

The taliban stopped all drug production in Afghanistan.The first year the locals are freed fron the yoke of the taliban we see a bumper crop for opium..Let’s be for real here. This drug money is used by the C.I.A. to bankroll overt and black book operations..IF THE DRUG ECONOMY STOPS OUR REAL ECONOMY COLLAPSES.

Posted by george william | Report as abusive

It is an excellent idea but can it be implemented and made to succeed. The backbone of Taliban is funded from Heroin and top priority should be to cut the earth from beneath these cold blooded Religious bigots and murderers. The gravy train is long so support for poppy trafficking cuts across ideologies and opponents, making the challenge tough. From Pakistani Generals to Mullah Omar, from Karzai Ministers to Tribal Chieftains – all are beneficiaries.

A ban will also be a shot in the arm for Democracy in Pakistan. Parliament there is powerless and Military and Intelligence service ISI dictate policy by using Al Qaeda,Taliban,LET,Jaish e Mohammed and Harkat ul Mujahidin as State agents to murder and suppress dissent in Pakistan as well as neighbouring Afghanistan and India. These supposedly non State actors are actually State agents. Just as ISI double crossed USA and gave Taliban shelter and Arms similarly they will sabotage any program to stop illicit poppy cultivation.

Targeting the poppy fields in Afghanistan and the ISI sponsored Terrorists in Pakistan should be the two fold strategy that will give multiple benefits.

Posted by F.Daruwala | Report as abusive

This week’s glimpse into the obvious: banning things does not make them go away. US alcohol prohibition in the 1920s gives us a test tube experiment of what happens, and the warlords that sprung up from that are still with us.

Governments are there to govern things not banish them. Otherwise we would call them banishments. Hubert Cross is right, we do not elect people to impose morals on the populace but rather, as Lincoln and Obama say, to do the things collectively we can’t do alone. Afghanistan is an ugly symptom of a deeper problem in Western governance.

Posted by Mike Bennett | Report as abusive

One would have thought by now, that with all the technology at the disposal of the US and other Governments, that a means of genetic engineering would have been developed that would a)cause the extinction of the opium poppy or b) render the product harmless.After all they can genetically modify other plant crops, why not the opium poppy? Hope you see this suggestion, Mr Obama


The price of what has been higher than opium not only in 2008 but also in 2007, when there was an all-time record poppy harvest. A high price for wheat is one thing, an agricultural infrastructure is another. Farmers need access to markets and credits,
which is available for opium but difficult for any of the country’s traditional crops, from fruits and tomatoes to wheat. Nathan envisages that the buy-it-all approach be complemented with an agrarian assistance program that would provide for credits, fertilizer, the establishment of a futures market, new or rebuilt roads etc.

As to the ethnic composition of Afghanistan, it is not, as you say, “ethnically Pashtun.” The Pashtun are a plurality, not even a majority. The other main groups are
Tajik (about 27%) Hazara (9%), Uzbek (9%) plus several smaller ethnicities.

As to your question: Yes, I’ve been to Afghanistan.

Posted by BDebusmann | Report as abusive